The art form known to us as opera got off to a terrific start in 17th-Century Italy with such early exemplars as Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo" (1607), "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" (1640) and "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" (1642).
Not that these works are likely to replace Mozart, to say nothing of Puccini, in the popular affection. Monteverdi's music is problematic, being in an "alien" style of arioso and recitativo of tremendous dramatic potency, but only suggesting what later generations would call tunes.
Then, too, there remains the sparseness of Monteverdi's indications as to how he wanted the music played, by which instruments and voices, and even precisely which notes. The musical shorthand of the time relies strongly on the performers' intelligence.
While "Orfeo" exists in numerous performing editions--and did, long before modern period-performance notions had taken root--it remains the early opera most clearly recognizable as itself from one edition to another.
The case for "Orfeo" in a version as close as possible to what we think Monteverdi intended was presented on recordings a quarter-century ago by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus Wien, in one of their least eccentric outings, and a strong cast headed by Lajos Kozma in the title role, with Rotraud Hansmann and the late Cathy Berberian sharing the major female roles.
This scholarly edition retains its effectiveness as both musicological exegesis and dramatic entertainment in its recent reincarnation in Teldec's "Das alte Werk" series (42494, 2 CDs, mid-price).
Just how good, and how unpreachy, a statement of musical principles it is is brought home by comparing it to a brand-new "Orfeo," executed with a degree of skill beyond the reach of period musicians in 1968, by the New London Consort under conductor-editor Philip Pickett (L'Oiseau-Lyre 433 545, 2 CDs).
It has in John Mark Ainsley a coolly proficient Orfeo. But he, like the other cast members, is very much in the mold of the "period singer"--which is OK, up to a point. And that point is quickly reached in Italian music, which does not blossom when subjected to the English-school purity that marks the singing here. Then, too, one tires quickly of Pickett's dogged perkiness, which shortchanges the drama's formal grandeur.
Conductor Rene Jacobs scored a hit two years ago with his recorded "Poppea" for Harmonia Mundi and he performs like service, achieving comparable results with "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" (Harmonia Mundi 901427/9, 3 CDs).
"Ulisse" retells, in music that draws both on the arioso and madrigal styles, the sections of Homer's "Odyssey" in which Penelope bemoans the absence of the wandering Ulysses while contending with an endless succession of suitors telling her to give up the wait and give in to them. But she remains steadfast, if not without momentary weakness.
Her vigil, which is central to the opera and affords composer and librettist (Giacomo Badoaro) wonderful opportunities for characterization of the varied suitors and some rowdy comedy, is interlaced with Ulysses' tribulations with the vengeful gods--particularly the ever-ornery Neptune--in finding his way home.
Jacobs and his collaborators, who first presented their version at the Montpelier Festival last year, may not have solved every problem inherent in the sketchy affair the composer left behind, but they have given it as lively and coherent a realization as anyone could dare hope.
Jacobs, directing from the harpsichord, has excellent collaborators in the confusingly named Concerto Vocale instrumental ensemble and a cast dominated by the radiantly expressive Penelope of mezzo Bernarda Fink, the possessor of a gorgeously warm, flexible instrument.
Her Ulysses is Chistoph Pregardien, a tenor with the kind of light, vibratoless voice generally favored for this music, which he enriches with forceful vocal acting--something seldom attempted by his antiquarian ilk but a requisite of Italian opera throughout the four centuries of its existence.